There's no question that football has a cerebral side, but much of the appeal of the sport comes from the explosive hits that happen on nearly every play. Backbreaker highlights these bone-jarring collisions like no other football game before it. The realistic manner in which players use their bodies as a weapon while on defense and crumple limply to the earth on the offensive side of the ball encourages the same sadistic yells the real sport so frequently elicits, but the rest of the experience falls far short of that Sunday-afternoon excitement. A frustrating passing system and an unpredictable running attack make marching down the field a chore, and the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. There are enough wow moments to make Backbreaker worth checking out for football fans looking for something other than the pervasive Madden series, but there are too many holes in this debut game to give it a starting spot in its rookie year.
The animation in Backbreaker is incredibly realistic and makes every action you take on the field pop off the screen. Players react like you would expect real people to, obeying the laws of physics so strictly that when their bodies contort and bend, you can imagine the pain these digital beings must be in. There has simply never been a sports game that so accurately reflects a player's movement and momentum. Get a clean shot on a quarterback, and watch the shock wave ripple through his body, forcing his head to snap back like a jack-in-the-box and his legs to lose the ability to support the weight above them. Running backs can be pulled down by just their arm or held in place by a falling lineman, while a surging linebacker rushes in to finish off the job. Although the animations are usually incredible, they are not without some faults. The throwing and kicking motions are a little off, and the lack of any injuries limits the ramifications of these punishing hits. But it's amazing how realistic Backbreaker looks.
Unfortunately, the actual football experience is not able to match this fantastic animation system. Much of the blame falls on the nonadjustable camera, which is set far too close to players. Because the camera places you right on the field, all of the hits carry even more weight than if you were zoomed farther back, but the positive aspects are overshadowed by an inability to see the entire field. As the quarterback, not only can you not see all of your receivers at one time, but you can barely see the pass rush barreling toward you, making it difficult to get the ball out of your hands before you find yourself flat on your back. On the defensive side of the ball, the extreme close-up makes it fun to claw your way past an offensive lineman, but you have no way to know what's happening on the other side of the field. And though you do have the ability to switch whom you're controlling midplay, you're liable to completely mess up a situation if you inhabit a new body without knowledge of your surroundings. Because of the claustrophobic camera angle, local matches against another player are handled with split-screen, although online play gives you the full screen to work with. The camera does a good job of putting you in the action, but it's so restrictive that it becomes a liability before long.
The suffocating camera is just the beginning of Backbreaker's problems. Just like the zoomed-in view tries to replicate the feeling of being on the field, the passing system puts you in the shoes of the quarterback like no other game, but it doesn't translate into a fun experience. When you snap the ball, you are locked on to just one receiver, and to switch to a different target you need to push a button or the right stick (depending on your control scheme) to toggle through your options. Although this is an interesting idea in theory, forcing you to read the defense and go through all your receivers to find someone who's open, in practice it just leads to a lot of sacks. It takes so long for QBs to release the ball after you hit the pass button that you have no time to cycle through your targets to find the best option. And even when you're just focusing on one receiver, you still find yourself on the wrong end of a sack far too often because the offensive line stinks, which strips away much of the appeal of playing as a gunslinger.
Backbreaker continues to frustrate even if you find an open receiver and successfully get off a pass before the defense flattens you. Quarterbacks are horrifically inaccurate. Even if your feet are set and you're throwing just a few yards down the field, the ball will still frequently sail far wide of your intended target. It's absolutely maddening when a routine play turns into an unforced incompletion. This issue is compounded by the defense's knack for picking off passes. If you build your offense around passing (which is advisable considering how awful the running game is), it's not surprising to find your interceptions creeping dangerously close to double digits, resulting in a disjointed game in which no lead is secure and clock-eating drives are a rarity. It's also impossible to know where the ball will end up once it's released. In the actual sport, quarterbacks lead receivers before they break on a route. But oftentimes in Backbreaker, the QB throws where the receiver is instead of where he's running to, which adds another hurdle to completing a pass.
As aggravating as the passing is, the running game is even worse. Your offensive line is a sieve during passing plays, but their inability to hold a block is even more glaring when you're trying to worm your way past the line of scrimmage. Whether you gain yardage or find yourself tackled for a loss is a crapshoot because the defense is so often able to blow past your blockers before you even have a chance to juke out of the way. And as amazing as the tackling animations are, your running back crumples to the turf far too easily. Linebackers frequently need only slap you on your thigh to make you fall to the ground, which is completely unrealistic. The average RB should laugh at such a weak attempt at being brought down, but a hand tackle far too often spells doom in Backbreaker. Also, the camera is troublesome during sweep plays. Your view adjusts so severely when changing direction that simply turning upfield is a challenge. The thrill of stiff-arming an oncoming defender and high-stepping your way to the end zone makes a successful attempt exciting, but the running game is far too unpredictable to be a legitimate offensive option.
At least the defensive side of the ball shows more promise than its offensive counterpart. The camera makes it difficult to adjust to situations on the fly, but it does give you a taste of what it's like to be on the field. Playing good defense is all about being disciplined. If you follow the called play correctly, you frequently find yourself in the perfect position to make a stop. When you're rushing the passer with an outside linebacker, you feel the weight of the lineman desperately trying to stop your progress, and the satisfying impact of wrapping up the quarterback is a real rush. When you drop into coverage, it's a joy to successfully run alongside a fleet-footed receiver and knock the ball down at the last second. But because of the camera, there is a severe disconnect between your actions and the overall play. When you're away from the ball, it's hard to know what's going on elsewhere, and switching to another player without knowledge of the situation could result in a disastrous mistake. Still, playing defense is one of the strong points of this game.
The best aspect of Backbreaker takes place outside the context of a football game, though. Tackle Alley is an additional game mode that emphasizes the incredible animation and thrill of avoiding a tackler; elements that are so frequently lost in the frustrating minutiae of the main game. You start 100 yards away from the end zone with the ball in your possession and have to avoid the defenders who stand in your path without any teammates to help you succeed. It's all about juking the defender and making smart decisions, so it's an absolute blast when you evade a gang of tacklers and fall into the end zone unscathed. Part of the fun comes from just messing with the heads of your digital competitors. This is a point-based challenge, so you're encouraged to showboat whenever possible to make your score rise. Hotdogging it past defenders is hilarious, especially when you run circles around them while they frantically try to bring you down. Juking out of the way at the last second can cause them to skid for 10 yards or more across the grass, and sometimes they even take out one of their teammates in the process. Each time you score a touchdown, the defensive configuration is changed and more defenders are added, and it's a treat to repeatedly foil your enemy's attempts to bring you down. Even more fun is playing this with a friend. You both have your own ball and have to make it successfully to the end zone, but you can help each other by distracting defenders, which leads to many funny situations.
As much fun as it is to hit someone or avoid a tackle in spectacular fashion, the presentation is not able to rise up to make these moments carry more impact. The replay system is awful. After every play, a replay automatically rolls, but it rarely shows off the best elements of the play. The camera has trouble framing the action, so that amazing catch you just made is often shown just outside your view. And you can't even adjust your view manually. When you call up a replay, you have only the option to rewind or fast-forward, which is disappointing when you want to show off the way a lineman bent backward, but you can't focus on the poor fellow. Furthermore, there is no commentary during games to make these fictional contests feel more important, and the P.O.D. song Boom that bellows during every kickoff becomes grating before the first half even ends.
There aren't any licensed teams or players in Backbreaker, but you can create your own if you want to import the NFL experience into this game. Unfortunately, even after you christen the San Francisco team with the name 49ers and drape the players in red and gold uniforms, the dumb artificial intelligence and incompetent referees still make it obvious that this is a far cry from the real thing. Players have very poor field awareness. Receivers run out of bounds of their own volition after a catch, and defenders line up offsides as if they are unaware of the rules. Coaches make just as many dumb mistakes. The computer has worse clock management than even Andy Reid, calling time-outs at inopportune moments or running the ball when time is ticking and the team desperately need points. Rules are also handled incorrectly. Roughing should result in an automatic first down, but in Backbreaker it's just a 15-yard penalty. Defensive pass interference is rarely called, even if you're shoving a receiver all over the field. None of these little problems destroy the experience on their own, but these issues add up to a number of aggravating moments.
The animations and hitting in Backbreaker are done so well that there is still fun to be had, but every other element is riddled with problems that make it hard to enjoy this game for the long term. It's a shame the nuts and bolts are so rough, because it really is amazing to see your players contort in painful ways. Because of this, Tackle Alley is the best way to enjoy this football game, stripping away many of the problems while letting you focus on what makes Backbreaker unique. But once the novelty of evading an entire team single-handedly wears off, you're left with a frustrating experience that has far too many issues to offer a worthwhile alternative to the Madden series.